Harry Potter Through Fresh Eyes: Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

[This article is part two of a four-part series. You can also read part one, part three, and part four]

Another year, another Harry Potter film directed by Chris Columbus. My hopes were a bit higher going into this one. With one massively successful Potter film under his belt, would Columbus better refine his craft to deliver us a more compelling sequel?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

This time around, our adventurers find themselves entangled with the mystery of the chamber of secrets, a hidden area of the school housing a secret that threatens to destroy all the "mudbloods" (those who aren't descended purely from wizards) at Hogwarts. When compared with the Sorcerer's Stone, this film feels a lot less like it's trying to say "Wow, look around at how cool everything is!" The world has already been established, and Columbus leans a little bit more on his existing creation, leaving room for a little bit more plot to take hold. The CGI, and by extension, the overall look of the film, is noticeably better in this film. The quidditch matches feel a little bit more believable and I was actually impressed with Dobby, a CGI character who's annoying as hell but who totally works, visually and thematically, in this world. Every time I saw Dobby, I couldn't decide whether to punch him in the throat or to give him a hug, so I guess that's an achievement on the filmmaker's part.

But overall, I still felt like this film had many of the same problems as the first film, lacking a real compelling narrative to keep me interested until the end. And with that initial aura of discovery significantly diminished, I actually felt this movie was weaker.

Here's what made this film frustrating for me: The introduction of some interesting themes that end up going nowhere. The first part of the film sets up Malfoy as a great foil to Potter, but as with many elements in these first two films, it's a red herring that ends up going nowhere. I should say I'm a huge fan of Tom Felton's's portrayal of Draco Malfoy, and an equally big fan of his delightfully sleazy father, Lucius, played by Jason Isaacs. Young Malfoy is truly a douchebag, with just a hint of racism (at least, this universe's version of it), which makes him a great object of hatred for the audience. The conflict between Potter and Malfoy is rife with overtones of good and evil, as well as adolescent angst, and I found myself sad to see Malfoy almost completely vanish from the second half of the film. The "pureblood/mudblood" conflict, as an allegory for racism had the potential to carry this film to a satisfying conclusion. No doubt we'll see Malfoy return in future films, but it felt like a wasted opportunity.

The final confrontation, crucial in films as long as these are, was limp and disappointing. While I appreciated its mystery-solving elements, I just don't think that Columbus is what this series needs when it comes to thrills. The way the protracted finale is shot and paced made it utterly devoid of any suspense for me. In fact, the ending felt an awful lot like a warmed over rehash of the resolution to The Sorcerer's Stone.

One of the few things that redeemed this film for me was a thoroughly entertaining performance by Kenneth Branagh who is magnificent as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, an incompetent, flamboyant celebrity blowhard. Gilderoy is the Stephen Colbert of Hogwarts, a man enamored of his own talents but with barely the slightest capacity to acknowledge his inadequacies. His inevitable fate in this film is a fitting one, and pays off the recurring broken wand motif brilliantly.

After this film, I'm five hours into the Potter universe, and while I haven't violently hated Chris Columbus's contributions,  I'm not particularly impressed yet and I'm starting to look at my watch frequently enough to make me wonder whether or not writing this series was a good idea.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

At last, the film I'd been waiting for. Alfonso Cuaron. Gary Oldman. Harry Potter connection or not, this film already had a lot of the ingredients for success and it was the one I was most eagerly anticipating. Would the film actually live up to its potential? And would the massive gulf in talent between Columbus and Cuaron be noticeable on screen?

Right from the first scene, you can feel the difference. The title reveal as Potter tries to cast a spell beneath his sheets adds just a bit of flair than we're used to, followed by the opening moments of the film proper, which portray Harry's insufferable home life, a sequence we've scene played out twice already. I was honestly starting to get tired of seeing the same old thing again, but this time, as Harry loses his temper at his boorish aunt and the camera dollies into his face, I felt something I hadn't felt until now in this series: Danger. Sure, the ensuing scene where Marge expands into a balloon is played for laughs, with its preposterous concept and carnival music. But if such a thing were to happen in real life, it would be grotesque and terrifying, and it shows Potter succumbing to the potential dark side of his powers.

Indeed, while many said the said Chamber of Secrets was darker than its predecessor, it's Azkaban that really runs with some of the more mature themes inherent in the series. Cuaron's palette matches it well; he eschews the bright colors of Colombus and tends towards a look that's significantly more monochromatic. The result is a more moody piece of work that actually helps to make the character moments more memorable, saving them from being lost amidst the general craziness of Hogwarts. The script also cuts the foreplay and gets right to the main conflict at the beginning: Sirius Black, an alleged Voldemort supporter, has escaped from Azkaban, the Potter-universe equivalent of a supermax prison. Having contributed to the death of Potter's parents, Black may be looking to finish the job by tracking down Potter.

Opening scene aside, I still felt like the opening hour of this film, especially the whacky double-decker ghost bus sequence, was very similar to the previous films. Sure, Cuaron shows us a couple flourishes (the scene when Professor Lupin, played by David Thewlis, first trains his students in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class has more creepiness than both of Columbus' films put together) but we're mostly going from class to class, moment to moment with no indication of whether or not it will pay off.

The biggest difference between this film and the previous two is evident the final 45-60 minutes, right after we get a tantalizing few moments with Gary Oldman, who shows up as the uninvited Sirius Black. It's here that we're finally treated to a story element that is inventive, both conceptually and visually, as Potter and Granger travel back in time to alter the past. These sequences are the most thrilling in the entire series thus far, as we're viewing the film's past events through an entirely different perspective, and left wondering how they will pull the whole thing off. It's also here that Cuaron shows hints of the bold filmmaking he would later display in Children of Men.

More importantly, the film coheres thematically. Throughout Azkaban, we finally see Potter express a profound dissatisfaction with his place in life, and the circumstances that fate has dealt him. In this film's ultimate confrontation, Potter makes an important realization and acts upon it, showing that this character actually has the capacity to mature and change.

Overall, I'm intrigued enough to keep going. Cuaron really showed that this series has cinematic potential when you stop focusing on the disparate, magical elements in the series and instead stick to a single, simple, exciting story. If there's one other thing I could complain about, it's the same thing I say about virtually every film I watch: It needed more Oldman.

Discuss: What did you think of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?[This article is part two of a four-part series. You can also read part 1, part three, and part four]